50 Years of Public Art in Toronto: Where Do We Go From Here?
By: Jeff Biggar and Ilana Altman
Public art is a pervasive and an elusive term, a catchall for any artistic endeavour that falls outside the walls of traditional arts institutions. Think sculpture, street art, infrastructure, and community arts. At its worst, public art is synonymous with plop art - works that do little more than function as autonomous objects in space. At its best, public art challenges conventional models of public space, invites a diverse range of people to participate in its creation, and pushes the boundaries of artistic practice.
In the past year, The Artful City, a Toronto-based collective, worked with Spacing to convene a conversation about public art in the city – what it means, who it is for, and what its future looks like. The emerging dialogue makes the case for tangible changes in how public art is conceived, commissioned, and formalized in policy. The collective also undertook an ambitious mapping effort, in collaboration with the Martin Prosperity Institute, to better understand the growth and composition of Toronto’s public art landscape over the past 50 years. What has resulted is a first-of-its kind visualization of formally tracked public art projects.
The city is in its hey-day for public art, despite a rich history of civic support and government legacy projects of Canada’s 1967 centennial. In fact, 64% of works commissioned in the last 50 years appeared after 2005. This can, in part, be explained by an intensifying downtown core, which requires private developers to provide public art under the City’s ‘percent for public art policy.’ Not surprisingly, intensification has precipitated a concentration of public art in the downtown where approximately 50% of works reside. Commercial development of the financial district, followed by a wider residential development boom, has also facilitated a noticeable change in public art funding and management: close to 30% of the work across Toronto is privately funded and remains in private hands. This ownership dynamic, on the one hand, raises concerns about the accessibility of public art, but, on the other hand, public art from private development has afforded artists the opportunity to take greater risks due to additional oversight and maintenance dollars.
The Artful City Public Art Map, 1967-2015 (Click to View Slideshow)
Despite a strong downtown presence, the City’s StART program has spread public art to the periphery of the city in more visible public spaces, such as murals on underpasses and paintings of traffic signal boxes. The program applies the idea that public art can be an extension of infrastructure, that we can re-imagine utilitarian spaces as important elements of the public realm. A similar approach was first realized by the TTC in late 1970’s with the opening of the Spadina Subway line; it was here that Toronto began commissioning public art as response to transit investment, and in plain sight of the public eye.
Toronto has undoubtedly achieved a significant volume of public art. At the same time, however, we are falling behind when policies continue to support a limited definition. The majority of work privileges the visual and the permanent, with little room and support for artists experimenting with new technology, duration, and socially-based process. To illustrate this point, sculpture accounts for 31% of the work realized in the last 50 years and street art for 45%.
The city will not become an international leader in the field by doing more of the same. In celebrating past achievements, let’s look to a future where public art evolves beyond a means of marking place to an exercise that both interprets history while shaping the future of the city. This means shaking things up – challenging the status quo, creating opportunities for artist-led projects, making room for temporary interventions with lasting impact, inviting artists and other stakeholders to the table earlier on, and in the process, better defining what we mean by ‘public’. Lastly, and most importantly, finding ways to detach public art opportunities from new development so areas of the city with less public art see more. Only then will Toronto continue its legacy of public art in a meaningful and progressive manner.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was first published in Spacing’s Feb 2017 winter issue, “ 50 years of Public Art in Toronto: where do we go from here?” by Jeff Biggar and Ilana Altman.
The Artful City Map Credits:
Project Founder and Lead: Ilana Altman, The Artful City
Project Lead: Jeff Biggar, The Artful City
Cartography: Kai Salmela
GIS and Data Support: Taylor Blake and Isabel Ritchie, Martin Prosperity Institute
716 public art works, 1967 to 2015: Sources: The City of Toronto’s Public Art and Monuments Collection, The City of Toronto’s Percent for Public Art Program, The City of Toronto’s StreertARToronto, Toronto Transit Commission, Waterfront Toronto, York University, University of Toronto.